Picks and Pans Review: Waterland

UPDATED 11/02/1992 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 11/02/1992 at 01:00 AM EST

Jeremy Irons, Sinead Cusack, Ethan Hawke

Novelist Graham Swift's 1983 tale of a secondary-school history teacher lost in the quagmire of his childhood in England's Fen Country was one of the most acclaimed British novels of the past decade. As for the movie adaptation—the teacher (Irons, with a mustache that somehow makes him look like a sad paintbrush) has been relocated from London to Pittsburgh, presumably because American audience—don't want to hear many foreign accents. The move, though, is a mistake. For one thing, Irons's students have not been all that interestingly cast. Hawke is a brooder in a leather coat, and the other students are open-faced, blandly groomed, a bit vacant, as if they are wishing Aaron Spelling would come on the PA system and announce a casting call for his next teen show. That, at least, would free them from listening to the shocking personal stories of his sexual life Irons tells them as he nears nervous collapse. His life on The Fens, dramatized in flashbacks, involved dark secrets, abortion, insanity, murder—everything but Jacob cheating Esau of his birthright.

Why, you wonder, haven't this man and his wife (she grew up with him and is even closer to mental collapse because of her inability to bear a child) seen a psychiatrist? Why haven't they tried adoption? These questions wouldn't float up, like methane bubbles in a bog, if director Stephen Gyllenhaal had drawn us into the story. What we have instead feels like Goodbye, Mr. Chips by way of D.H. Lawrence.

Irons is okay. As the wife, Cusack (Irons's real-life wife) is good, almost too good. She's lumpish and terrifying. After a while, you wish she would go away. (R)

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